‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’

I want to write a little about one of my favourite poems: Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Like all poetry this should be heard rather than read. The Northern Irish actor Kenneth Branagh has recorded most of Owen’s poetry and you can listen to his rendition here if you wish. But for me at least, Branagh’s readings of Owen’s poetry, beautiful diction though they have, leave me cold. There is real anger and real sadness in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, anger and sadness that Branagh’s reading totally misses. I prefer the very simple reading at the end of the magnificent 1997 film Regeneration (here). If you watch the whole film, the poem, when it comes, will have you in tears. It’s still not angry enough for me, but very moving nonetheless.

I first read this poem at school more than forty years ago. Our English teacher was, I think, a bit of a closet radical. Coming back to it now I thought the poem’s meaning was so obvious that no one would ever need to spend more than a minute or two on interpretation. Yet actually that’s probably not correct. The reason why the ‘meaning’ of the poem is so obvious to me is because I was brought up at a time and in a society where knowledge of the Bible and of the First World War was just there. Every day we had Bible readings in school. Our grandparents had experienced the war and many of our teachers had lived through it. In much of the western world this is no longer the case. In many, many ways this is a good thing. Thank God (oops!) children don’t have to have horrendous biblical bunkum pushed down their throats. Thank God most western children no longer have to hear about the massacre of whole generations. But when it comes to canonical poetry or literature there’s a bit of a gap.

This became clear to me when I wrote a couple of short pieces on poetry, in particular one about A. E. Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills. I soon realised that this poem must be on the curriculum of quite a few American schools or colleges. At least every few weeks a school teacher in the US sets his or her students a task of writing a critique or interpretation of Blue Remembered Hills. And, lo and behold, it seems that the students don’t read the poem and think about what it means to them or even try to figure out for themselves what the poet might have meant. No, what they do is go straight onto the internet looking for someone else’s ready-made interpretation which they can then, at best, use or, at worst, plagiarize.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Now for every ten students who cut and paste or simply plagiarize there will be one who is really moved and wants to offer their own penny worth. Perhaps it was ever thus.

We might even want to question (I hope not) the relevance of old canonical novels, plays and poetry. After all for school and college students today the Boer War which Housman alludes to and the First World War which is the immediate subject of Owen’s poetry are ancient history. Be that as it may.

Let’s return to The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It is of course an anti-war poem, but it is so much more than that. It’s also a denunciation of imperialistic capitalism and a searing indictment of the warped morality of sacrifice. Whose sacrifice and for whom?

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is an allegory based on the Old Testament story (or parable if you like) found in Genesis 22 and usually called The Binding of Isaac. This story is, like most in the Old Testament, a pretty evil story, completely lacking in anything that we would regard as moral today:

The Binding of Isaac

Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac

God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham didn’t even hesitate. He started straight away to prepare the sacrificial altar: ‘Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife… Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.’ Isaac in his innocence didn’t get what his father was doing: ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham avoided the question and lied: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’

No hesitation, no compassion. Abraham just had to obey God’s word. ‘Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.’ Then and only then do we get one of the original Deus ex machina. Just as he was about to slay his son God stops him:

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.

Because Abraham had been more than ready to obey, God let him off the hook. He could sacrifice ‘a ram caught by its horns’ instead. God was very pleased with the result of his little charade and rewarded Abraham:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

A more pitiless, immoral tale it would be hard to find. What on earth can this ‘lovely’ story or parable teach us except unthinking obedience to a remote and all powerful God? But at least Isaac had been spared, even though this seems to have mattered not one iota to his father.

In Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Isaac, who represents the millions of young men slaughtered in the trenches of the First World War, is not spared. Abram (an earlier form of Abraham) is the heartless omnipotent power; he is the ‘old’ power of the imperialistic, militaristic states. The power of money, position and pride. This power, just like God, demands obedience and sacrifice, the sacrifice not of their power but of ‘the young’. As in the Old Testament the young ask an obvious innocent question:

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

‘Fire and iron’ to make the weapons of war are being prepared, but who will be the sacrificial ‘lamb’? Like the Biblical Isaac they got no answer:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

The young were kitted out in ‘belts and straps’. Parapets and trenches were dug ready for the knife to fall, ready for the sacrifice of a whole generation. God’s angel tries to offer a helping hand and a way out:

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

There was no reason for this war, no fight of good against evil. It was just the useless pride of the rulers that prevented them from seeing reason. If they had been willing to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ instead of their own people, the slaughter could have been avoided. But no, the rulers were more pitiless than God:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In the heartless Bible Abraham’s people (the later Jews) were rewarded: ‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’ In our time there is no redemption, not even an offer of future glory. The power must be obeyed, the people are sacrificed.

North Meols is an ancient parish on the coast of south-west Lancashire. Much of it has now been gobbled up by the modern resort town of Southport. Like most of this stretch of coast ‘between the Mersey and the Ribble’, as it was referred to in William the Conqueror’s Domesday survey in 1086, it was heavily settled by the Scandinavians in the tenth century after their temporary expulsion from Dublin. The name Meols itself derives from the Old Norse word melr, meaning sand hills or dunes, an apt description for the area. I want to use the example of North Meols to tell just a little of the generally unrecorded and under-appreciated Scandinavian settlement of Lancashire.

North Meols Mudflats

North Meols Mudflats

There are almost no written sources mentioning Lancashire before William the Conqueror’s Domesday survey of 1086 – even then it was not called Lancashire but was still included under Yorkshire. The area of coast where North Meols lies was referred to as ‘between the Mersey and the Ribble’.[1] This stretch of coast was inhospitable and remote. For a long time it was not a very sought-after place to live. In his excellent local history of North Meols and Southport, Peter Aughton tells something about the geography of the area. It is such a fine evocative description that I will quote it in full:[2]

‘The whole of the coastal plain was dotted with shallow meres which were destined to acquire names like Gattern Mere, Barton Mere, White Otter and Black Otter Pool, but the greatest of these was Martin Mere. It measured over four miles from east to west and three miles from north to south, and at one point it came within a mile of the sea. In its time Martin mere was numbered amongst the greatest meres in England. Great flocks of wild geese flew over the waters. Pike, perch and bream swam beneath the surface and the osprey nested in the rushes of its hinterland. The waters would rise and fall with the seasons and after heavy rains the acres of bog and marshland were reclaimed by the waters, dried up creeks filled with water and became part of the mere until the next dry spell. After particularly heavy rains Martin Mere would sometimes manage to find an outlet to the coast and spill over into the great salt waters of the sea.

North of the mere was a river estuary, another habitat of geese and wild fowl, a land of mudflats, salt marshes and sea-washed – but to the south the coastal regions were of an entirely different nature. Here blown sand accumulated into a wide band of desolate sand hills with ever changing contours sculpted by the wind. Here the land was in perpetual conflict with the sea. On the slopes of the sand hills sparse clumps of marram grass struggled for a hold on the sandy inclines but in the valleys between the dunes the sand in some places gave way to carpets of local vegetation where, at the lowest points, lay dark shallow pools of water. Here grew the marsh marigold, reedmace, burr reed, water mint and bog bean. Millions of years of evolution had produced the sand lizard which scurried through the coarse grass, and in the spring could be heard the croaking, unlovely mating call of the natterjack toad.’

A better evocation of ‘place’ I have yet to read. It was the place where I was born and where I spent the early years of my life on its cold and windswept sands, although its rough natural beauty had by then been much altered by Man, not always for the better.

 

north meols map

But, as Aughton rightly says, despite the fact that ‘between the sand dunes, the mud flats, and the mere, nature had created a stretch of fertile soil with woodlands for fuel, pasture for animals, and fresh water only a few feet below the ground’, the native British of this island, and later on the Northumbrian English, had pretty much ignored it, having so many other more fertile areas to chose from. When the Scandinavians arrived here in the tenth century they would have found an almost untouched land. If there were any people living here they were without doubt few and far between.

King Athelstan

King Athelstan

Before the Scandinavians arrived what is now called Lancashire had nominally been a part of the kingdom of Northumbria, whose south-western boundary was the River Mersey. But as far as we can tell the Northumbrian English had never settled the desolate coast around North Meols, and the topographical place name evidence suggests that Celtic British settlement of the area was at most sparse.[3] Any English influence from Mercia or Wessex in ‘Lancashire’ only came later too, following the ‘submission’ of the Scots, Cumbrians and Norse to King Edward the Elder in 920 at Bakewell in Derbyshire and in 927 to King Athelstan at Eamont Bridge (or Dacre) in Cumberland.

The Scandinavians had started to raid and then settle in Ireland in the first half of the ninth century.[4] They established bases and trading centres, called longphorts, in Dublin, Waterford, Cork and elsewhere. But in the year 902 the Irish, who often fought each other as much as they did the Vikings, managed for a short time to unite enough to expel the Scandinavians from Dublin. The Annals of Ulster reported:

The heathens were driven from Ireland, that is from the longphort of Ath Cliath (Dublin), by Mael Finnia son of Flannacan with the men of Brega and by Cerball son of Muirecan with the Leinster men…  and they abandoned a good number of their ships, and escaped half dead after they had been wounded and broken.[5]

These expelled ‘Hiberno-Norse’ fled to the nearby coasts of Wales and north-west Britain. At least one group first went to Anglesey in Wales. The Annals of Wales for 902 say:[6]

Igmund came to Mona and took Maes Osfeilion.

Igmunt in insula Mon venit tenuit Maes Osmeliaun

Norse fleet

Norse fleet

The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland tell the story in more detail. It seems that the British Welsh repulsed the Northmen in Anglesey, after which the Scandinavians then settled ‘near Chester’, in what is now Cheshire, with the consent of Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’.

Now the Norwegians left Ireland, as we said, and their leader was Ingimund, and they went then to the island of Britain. The son of Cadell son of Rhodri was king of the Britons at that time. The Britons assembled against them, and gave them hard and strong battle, and they were driven by force out of British territory.

After that Ingimund with his troops came to Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons; for her husband, Aethelred, was sick at that time. (Let no one reproach me, though I have related the death of Aethelred above, because this was prior to Aethelred’s death and it was of this very sickness that Aethelred died, but I did not wish to leave unwritten what the Norwegians did after leaving Ireland.) Now Ingimund was asking the Queen for lands in which he would settle, and on which he would build barns and dwellings, for he was tired of war at that time. Aethelflaed gave him lands near Chester, and he stayed there for a time.[7]

Viking Wirral

Viking Wirral

But the Scandinavians under Ingimund weren’t content with what the Mercian Aethelflaed had given them, they saw the ‘wealthy city’ of Chester ‘and the choice lands around it’ and Ingimund ‘yearned to possess them’. Probably in 907, he collected the ‘chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes’ who had come with him from Ireland and attacked Chester, only to be bloodily repulsed by the Mercians who had just restored the city’s walls and garrisoned the town.[8]

The Vikings then settled down peacefully on the Wirral which became thoroughly Scandinavian.[9]

It was at this time in the early tenth century that the Scandinavians from Ireland probably also first settled along the Lancashire coast. Perhaps some of them were even the ‘chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes’ referred to as combining with Ingimund to besiege the English at Chester?

Cuerdale Hoard

Cuerdale Hoard

So let us return to Lancashire. In 1840 some workmen discovered a truly immense hoard of Viking silver at Cuerdale on the River Ribble near Preston.[10] Cuerdale is of course itself a Norse name. This hoard is conventionally dated to between 905 and 910. It could well have been a Viking leader’s war chest brought to finance his attempt to recapture Dublin, possibly in league with the Scandinavians of York.[11] How and why this Viking leader left such a large amount of treasure buried on the banks of the River Ribble is not known. The dating of the burial is controversial and relies upon dating the thousands of coins it contained. Although it is not the academic consensus, it is certainly possible that the hoard was buried later than 905-910, perhaps even as late as 937 when the Northmen, in league with the Scots and Strathclyde British (the ‘Cumbrians’), were defeated by the English king Athelstan at the famous Battle of Brunanburh.[12] The River Ribble itself was certainly a place the Vikings made use of. It was a natural point of arrival and departure for them from Ireland, and the Ribble was certainly on the most direct route joining the Irish Sea with York.

Whether the Cuerdale hoard was buried in the years after 905 or a couple of decades later the evidence suggests that it was during this period that the stretch of coast between the Mersey and the Ribble was first settled by Scandinavians who gave their names to so much of the area.

wainwrightIn North Meols and along the nearby coast the Vikings would have found many convenient places to ground their ships. As suggested, the area was either not inhabited or only sparsely so. In the records we find not one mention of any confrontation between these Scandinavians and any resident peoples. This implies that the settlement was fairly peaceable. The great historian of English place names, Eilert Ekwall, suggested that this is ‘only a hypothesis’ because it is an argument ‘from silence’, meaning that this view comes only from the fact that there are no written records of clashes between Scandinavian settlers and native inhabitants.[13] Frederick Wainwright, by far the greatest historian of the Scandinavian settlement of north-west England, wrote that the evidence for the peaceable nature of the Scandinavian settlement of Lancashire ‘is none the less powerful… since it is almost inconceivable that an organized military conquest or a violent social upheaval, even in the remote north-west, should altogether escape the notice of both contemporary and later annalists’. Wainwright added:

To this may be added the positive if somewhat inconclusive evidence of place-names. It has been shown… that the distribution of Scandinavian place-names in south Lancashire suggests very strongly that the Norsemen were willing to occupy the poorer lands along the coast, lands which the earlier English settlers had deliberately avoided. If this is correct then the settlement can hardly have been preceded by a military conquest, for the conquerors would not choose to live in neglected marshlands… There is no reason to believe that the relations were cordial, but there is equally no reason, at least from the evidence of place-names, to suspect any violent hostility.[14]

scandi lancsAs in Cumbria further north, between the Mersey and the Ribble we find Scandinavian place names everywhere. In the immediate vicinity of North Meols itself we find Crossens, Birkdale, Ainsdale, Formby, Altcar, Crosby, Litherland and Kirkdale. Inland we find Scarisbrick, Tarlscough, Tarleton, Ormskirk, Kellamerg and Hesketh. These are all Norse names. The same is true up and down the coast.[15] If we were to add in lesser names of fields and topographical features the list would be almost endless.

Recent DNA studies of the Scandinavian ancestry of people in Cheshire and south-west Lancashire have concluded that about half of the people bearing historically old family names there are descendants of these Vikings settlers – who without much doubt came from Ireland.

These Scandinavian settlers soon turned to fishing and farming and away from typical or stereotypical Viking raiding. Nevertheless, as the tenth century progressed, it is hard to imagine that at least some of these Lancastrian Scandinavians didn’t occasionally participate in the many battles fought between the Norse, English, British and Scots for the ultimate control of north-west England.

And so life Scandinavian continued In North Meols: farming, fishing and maybe a bit of fighting too.

And then after the Norman Conquest this simple life was shattered. The Norman French didn’t immediately arrive in Lancashire after 1066. When the French first ventured north to commit ethnic genocide in Yorkshire and other northern areas in 1069, in the rather misnamed ‘Harrying of the North’, they probably also laid waste to some parts of Lancashire and Cheshire too.[16] But they probably never set foot in North Meols.

Roger de Poitou

Roger de Poitou

In 1086, when the Domesday survey of England was ordered by William the Conqueror, North Meols, plus nearly the whole of modern Lancashire (and much else besides), had been given to Roger de Poitou (the son of William’s companion at the Battle of Hasting Roger de Montgomerie) as part of William’s divvying up of the whole of his conquered country to his followers.[17]

Domesday Book records that five unnamed thegns, most likely descendants of the Scandinavian settlers in the early tenth century, though no doubt by now mixed with English and, perhaps, British blood, had held Ortringmele (North Meols), Herleshala (Hasall) and Hireton (Hurleton) before the Conquest. Now these lands were part of Roger de Poitou’s huge holdings, and he had granted the liberty and ‘farm’ of them (by ‘subinfeudation’) to various of his French vassals, called Geoffrey, Roger, William, Robert, Gilbert and Warin.[18] This is another story; the story of a brutal, centuries-long Norman-French suppression and exploitation of Lancashire and of all of England. It’s not a happy history.

A number of eminent Victorian and Edwardian historians and antiquarians had much to say about the Scandinavian settlement of Lancashire. Much is this still of interest, though much is just fantasy. Here is one of my favourite quotes from S. W. Partington’s The Danes in Lancashire:

From the Mersey to the Ribble was a long, swampy, boggy plain, and was not worth the Romans’ while to make roads or to fix stations or tenements. From the Conquest until the beginning of the 18th century this district was almost stagnant, and its surface undisturbed. The Dane kept to the shore, the sea was his farm. He dredged the coast and estuary, with his innate love of danger, till Liverpool sprang up with the magic of Eastern fable, and turned out many a rover to visit every region of the world. The race of the Viking are, many of them, the richest merchants of the earth’s surface.[19]

I wish it were still so.

ship

 

 

 

 

 

References:

[1] The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, Vol. 1, W. Farrer and J. Brownbill, London. 1906.

[2] Peter Aughton, North Meols and Southport – A History, Lancaster, 1988, pp. 16-17.

[3] See: F. T. Wainwright, The Scandinavians in Lancashire, pp. 181- 227, in Scandinavian England, ed. H. P. R Finberg, Chichester, 1975.

[4] Clare Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland – The Dynasty of Ivarr to A. D. 1014, Edinburgh, 2007.

[5] The Annals of Ulster, ed. and trans. S, Mac Airt and G.  Niocaill, Dublin, 1983, p. 354.

[6] David Dumville, ed. and trans., Annales Cambriae, A.D. 682-954: Texts A-C in Parallel, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, 2002.

[7] Joan N. Radner, ed. and trans., Fragmentary annals of Ireland, Dublin, 1978.

[8] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in D. Whitelock, English Historical Documents, London, 1979.

[9] Stephen Harding, Viking Mersey: Scandinavian Wirral, West Lancashire and Chester, 2002.

[10] J. Graham-Campbell, The Cuerdale Hoard and Related Viking-age Silver and Gold from Britain and Ireland in the British Museum, London: British Museum Press, 2011.

[11] J. Graham-Campbell (ed.), Viking treasure from the North, Selected papers from The Vikings of the Irish Sea conference, Liverpool, 18–20 May 1990 (Liverpool, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1992)

[12] For the Battle of Brunanburh see: Michael Livingston (ed.), The Battle of Brunanburh, A Casebook, Exeter, 2011.

[13] E, Ekwall. The Place Names of Lancashire, Manchester, 1922; The Concise Dictionary of English Place-Names, Oxford, 1936.

[14] Wainwright, The Scandinavians in Lancashire, p. 192.

[15]  E. Ekwall, The Place Names of Lancashire; John Sephton, A Handbook of Lancashire Place Names, Liverpool, 1913; Henry Harrison, The Place Names of the Liverpool District, London, 1898; Geoffrey Leech, The unique heritage of the place-names in north-west England, Lancaster,.

[16] Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest, London, 2012; Peter Rex, 1066, A New History of the Norman Conquest, Cirencester, 2011.

[17] Ibid

[18] The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, Vol. 1, W. Farrer and J. Brownbill, London. 1906.

[19] S. W. Partington, The Danes in Lancashire, London, 1909, pp. 7- 8.

The history of the British colonization of ‘Brittany’ is not well known either in Britain or in France. It is a fascinating story, although the early years of the settlement in the fifth century remain obscure. Yet not long after the British Celts had fled the invading English (Saxons) in the 450s a large British army under a king called Riothamus was defeated by the Visigoths in Gaul – what is now France. This is the story I wish to tell.

Attila in Gaul, 451

Attila in Gaul, 451

I previously told the story of a Gallo-Roman aristocrat called Paulinus of Pella (see here), about his troubles caused by the arrival of the Germanic Goths in Bordeaux and his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to maintain at least a semblance of the pampered and privileged life he had been born into. At the time of his death around 460 the Western Roman Empire was in the finals stages of disintegration. Germanic tribes were busily entrenching themselves all over Roman Gaul and extending the territories they controlled: the Goths spreading out from their kingdom of Toulouse, the Franks in the North East, the Burgundians in the East with their new capital in Lyon, and even the Alans.  The non-Germanic Huns under their leader Attila had also threatened, but they withdrew after having been defeated by the Roman general Aëtius and his Gothic allies at the famous Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, in 451. They never returned to Gaul.

By the time of Paulinus’s death the Romans and Gallo-Romans had already had to make uncomfortable accommodations with the new Germanic masters, yet the Empire was still capable of striking back, though by now more weakly and less frequently.

Into this caustic mix of rivalries and fights for land a new ethic group arrived in the 450s: the British. They and their descendants would settle the north-west corner of Gaul called Armorica and would ultimately give their ethnic name to this land: Brittany, or Bretagne in French.

The Britons who arrived in Gaul in the 450s are often said to have been a ‘second wave’ of refugee immigrants.[1] An earlier group of British fighters had accompanied the British imperial usurper Marcus Maximus to Gaul in 383, never to return. The eventual fate of this first wave remains unknown and is a matter of some scholarly debate. But the British of the second wave were without any doubt those who went on to ‘create’ Brittany.

Background to the emigration

The background to this emigration was the ‘Saxon Advent’, that is the arrival of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in Britain. This advent is conventionally dated to the year 441, but this dating is controversial.[2] The leaders of the first Saxon party were said to have been called Hengest and Horsa. Under the year 449 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:

This year Marcian and Valentinian assumed the empire, and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern (Vortigern), king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them.[3]

gildasThe British monk Gildas wrote of the subsequent sufferings of the British:

Some, therefore, of the miserable remnant (of the British), being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favour that could be offered them: some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation. “Thou hast given us as sheep to be slaughtered, and among the Gentiles hast thou dispersed us.” Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country. But in the meanwhile, an opportunity happening, when these most cruel robbers were returned home, the poor remnants of our nation (to whom flocked from divers places round about our miserable countrymen as fast as bees to their hives, for fear of an ensuing storm), being strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts, as the poet says, “With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven,” that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.[4]

British Brittany

British Brittany

The others who ‘passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations’ went to Armorica in Gaul, which would later be called Brittany after them.

There is much to tell about the circumstances, timing and composition of this British emigration to Armorica, particularly whether it was a coordinated mass emigration under powerful Romano-British leaders or whether it was a more piecemeal process involving many smaller, disparate groups of frightened refugees. Whatever the case, by 461, only twenty years after the conventional date of the Saxon Advent, there were already enough Britons in Armorica to justify them sending their own bishop to the Council of Tours. T. M. Charles Edwards writes:

The first strong evidence for the emergence of a distinct British settlement in the north-west of Armorica does not come until 461, when subscriptions to the council of Tours (AD 461) included ‘Mansuetus, bishop of the Britons’.[5]

Most of what we know about these and subsequent early British refugees in Gaul comes from the many ‘lives’ of Celtic saints and is best left to the specialists in such matters. Yet in just a few generally reliable sources we soon find mention of a British king called Riothamus whose 12,000 strong army was defeated by the Visigoths of King Euric around 469/70. Before considering, but not answering, the question of who Riothamus was, I will try to explain what happened and perhaps why and where.

Bourges and Déols

Before we hear anything of Riothamus, we find a brief mention in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks of an event which probably took place sometime between 463 and 468. It says:

The Britanni were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols.[6]

Brittani de Bitoricas a Gothis expulsi sunt, multis apud Dolensem vicum peremptis.

Deols in Berry

Deols in Berry

Following the mention of a British bishop at the Council of Tours in 461, this is the next time where explicit reference is made to any British (‘Britanni’) in Gaul. Conventionally these events at Bourges and Déols (in the county of Berry about 20 miles southwest of Bourges) where ‘many (British) were slain’ by the Goths, is dated to about 469 and equated with the defeat of  Riothamus’s British army by Euric’s Visigoths. I will discuss this battle later, but here I would just like to suggest that the conflation of events at Bourges/Déols and the battle which certainly took place in 469/70 is probably mistaken.

Ralph Mathisen expresses the conventional view:

In Gaul, Anthemius was faced by the able and ambitious Visigothic king, Euric (466-484). In 469 or shortly afterward, the Armorican Bretons commanded by Riothamus… were engaged by Anthemius to oppose the Visigoths. But when, after having occupied Bourges, the Bretons attacked the Goths on their own territory at Déols, they suffered a signal defeat.[7]

How Mathisen draws the precise implication from Gregory of Tours’ words that ‘after having occupied Bourges, the Bretons attacked the Goths on their own territory at Déols’ is beyond me. Rather the text says simply but explicitly that the British ‘were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols’.

The paragraph in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks where we find mention of Britons being killed by Goths at Déols was in all likelihood taken from a ‘year chronicle’ and is thus probably roughly in chronological order.[8] If this is so then a close examination of the paragraph reveals that it covers events in the period between 463 and 467/8, with the events at Déols most likely taking place around 465/6. Here is the full paragraph:

Now Childeric fought at Orleans and Adovacrius came with the Saxons to Angers. At that time a great plague destroyed the people. Egidius died and left a son, Syagrius by name. On his death Adovacrius received hostages from Angers and other places. The Britanni were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols. Count Paul with the Romans and Franks made war on the Goths and took booty. When Adovacrius came to Angers, king Childeric came on the following day, and slew count Paul, and took the city. In a great fire on that day the house of the bishop was burned. After this war was waged between the Saxons and the Romans; but the Saxons fled and left many of their people to be slain, the Romans pursuing. Their islands were captured and ravaged by the Franks, and many were slain. In the ninth month of that year, there was an earthquake.

GregMost of these events mentioned by Gregory can be confirmed and cross-checked from other sources. Importantly they seem to have taken place in the order mentioned by Gregory. The earliest events, such as Childeric at Orleans and a plague, can be dated to 463/4. In the middle we read that ‘Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own’. Euric became king in 466. The last sentence concerning an earthquake can be dated to 467/8. Hydatius  wrote that ‘in the second year of the emperor Anthemius blood burst forth from the ground in the middle of Toulouse and continued to flow for an entire day’, and  Anthemius became Emperor in 467. As historian Penny MacGeorge comments about the period:

Marcellinus comes noted an earthquake in the Ravenna region and an eruption of Vesuvius; and the Fasti Vindobonenses an outbreak of cattle disease in AD 467. There was pestilence in Italy, particularly in Campania. In both East and West this was a time of disasters and unusual events including: the fire in Constantinople in AD 465; earthquakes and floods in the eastern Mediterranean; celestial phenomena in AD 467; and famines. All this may have contributed to a general feeling of insecurity, even of doom.[9]

On the basis of all this chronology it is likely that the killing of the British at Déols took place around 465/6, and was separate from the battle lost by Riothamus’s British army, which can be dated with some certainty to 469/70.

If this is correct, then the events at Déols probably had nothing to do with Riothamus or, even if he had been a British leader at Bourges and Déols, it wasn’t the great battle where he and his British army were defeated by Euric. The scanty available evidence regarding the early settlement of ‘Brittany’ suggests that it was heaviest in the north-west of Armorica peninsula but that some groups of Britons had ventured further south along the coast to the vicinity of Vannes and Nantes. Bourges is situated far inland and what the British were doing there is a bit of a mystery. It might well have been that some British refugees had established themselves in the former Roman town of Bourges and, having been driven out by the Goths, were then killed (or at least some of them) at Déols as they fled back towards the coast.

Whatever the case, we can now turn to the defeat of Riothamus and his substantial British army by Euric’s Goths in about 469/70.

The British defeat

Our information comes from Jordanes’ The Origins and Deeds of the Goths. Jordanes was a Gothic Roman bureaucrat in the mid sixth century. Writing about the years 466 – 476 he says:

Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own. Anthemius, the Emperor, receiving intelligence of this, immediately invited the aid of the Britons, whose King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of Ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges. Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them leading an innumerable army, and fighting for a long time, overcame Riothimus, the king of the Britons, before the Romans had joined company with him. Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…. When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna, where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command. He was a senator of most renowned family and the son of Avitus, a recent emperor who had usurped the reign for a few days–for Avitus held the rule for a few days before Olybrius, and then withdrew of his own accord to Placentia, where he was ordained bishop. His son Ecdicius strove for a long time with the Visigoths, but had not the power to prevail. So he left the country and (what was more important) the city of Arverna to the enemy and betook himself to safer regions.[10]

Emperor Anthemius

Emperor Anthemius

The context of this battle between Britons and Visigoths was that in early 467 a ‘Greek’ called Anthemius had been elevated to be Roman Emperor. He wasn’t very popular among the Gallo-Ronan aristocracy but he did try to protect Gaul. Anthemius had sought the help of the British, as Jordanes tells us. Most likely he offered them ‘federate’ status and the prospect of land, as the Romans of the late empire often did when dealing with ‘barbarian’ tribes. At this date the main concern of the Romans and Gallo-Romans was King Euric’s Goths. Initially these Visigoths (i.e. western Goths) had been granted their territory in 418 centred on Toulouse. For many years they acted as unruly and not always obedient allies of the Romans. But in 466 Euric had succeeded to the Gothic throne by murdering his brother Theoderic and broke with Rome. The Goths already controlled much of south-west Gaul and had started to push northwards. One of their key objectives was the region of Auvergne with its principal city of Arverna (now Clermont-Ferrand). It was to stem this Gothic advance that Anthemius had requested the assistance of the British, who, as Jordanes says, came ‘with twelve thousand by way of Ocean’ and disembarked from their ships.

Where the British ships actually arrived, as well as from where they came, is not known.  ‘Ocean’ then and now is the Atlantic seaboard of western France. It is because Jordanes says that the British were received into the city/state of ‘the Bituriges’ that conventionally Riothamus’s battle is placed at Bourges because ‘Bituriges’ is usually translated as Bourges. But this identification while possible is by no means certain. The Gallic Bituriges people were settled all over Aquitaine, although according to the Roman Strabo their territory was surrounded by that of a distinct Aquitanian people, and the Bituriges  ‘were not themselves Aquitanian and took no part in their political affairs’. The Bituriges Vivisci were settled around Bordeaux and the Bituriges Cubi around Bourges. So the British landing could well have been as far south as Bordeaux, which unlike Bourges is actually on the Ocean, Bourges itself is a very long way inland. I will leave such conjectures for now; we simply don’t know here the British disembarked.

Riothamus fights the Visigoths

Riothamus fights the Visigoths

The link up with the Romans that didn’t happen

Jordanes says the Riothamus’s British were expecting to join forces with the Romans but that ‘before the Romans had linked up with him’ he was met and defeated by the Goths. Emperor Anthemius’s promised forces can hardly have been based in Gaul because these forces didn’t amount to much by this time. It is more likely that it was a Roman army under the command of Anthemius’s son Anthemiolus who the British were hoping to meet. The Gallic Chronicle of 511 says:

Anthemiolus was sent to Arles by his father the emperor Anthemius along with Thorisarius, Everdingus, and Hermianus the Count of the Stables. King Euric encountered them on the other side of the Rhone and, after killing the generals, devastated everything.

Antimolus a patre Anthemio imperatore cum Thorisario, Everdingo et Hermiano com. stabuli Arelate directus est, quibus rex Euricus trans Rhodanum occurrit occisisque ducibus omnia vastavit.

Visigoths

Visigoths

This event falls between the succession of Euric in 466 and the war between Anthemius and Ricimer (471–472). ‘It can probably be further narrowed to the period when Anthemius is known to have been organising a concerted effort to remove the Visigoths from Gaul between 468 and 471.’[11]

So it is quite possible that ‘Anthemiolus’ army was sent to reinforce Riothamus and that Euric defeated both forces in turn, probably in either 470 or 471’.[12]. In what order it is difficult to know, although I think that most of the chronological evidence suggests that the defeat of the British came first and shortly thereafter that the Goths defeated the Romans near Arles before returning north to besiege Clermont-Ferrand.

Where did the British come from?

map (1)Before turning to the possible location of King Riothamus’s defeat, if it wasn’t at Déols, we might ask where this British army had come from. There are only two possible answers. Either they came by sea from the more northerly British/Breton settlement in Armorica (i.e. present-day Brittany) or they came direct from the island of Britain. An insular British origin was argued for by the great Breton/French historian Léon Fleuriot.[13] Not only did Fleuriot argue that Riothamus’s British had came from the island of Britain to support the Emperor Anthemius in Gaul, but he also argued that Riothamus was the  Romano-British leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. This rather astonishing claim has since been supported in more modern times by several serious historians.[14] Others have even claimed that Riothamus was King Arthur; most popularly Geoffrey Ashe.[15] The arguments put forward for these claims are long, complex and obscure but, for me at least, they ultimately fail to convince.

But even if we put King Arthur to one side, as I do, the origin of the large and coordinated British force, ten thousand strong, which arrived in Gaul under the leadership of a British king called Riothamus, could well have been Britain itself. On the other hand Riothamus’s force might have consisted of  the British/Bretons of the diaspora – as we will see the emperor Anthemius asked the British ‘north of the Loire’ for help

It is with this mention of ‘north of the Loire’ that we can now turn to the only other two mentions of Riothamus’s Britons in the sources we have.

Treason and exile

In the second half of the 460s, the post of Roman Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, the official governor, was held on two occasions by a Gallo-Roman aristocrat called Arvandus. During his second term in office (467 – 468) Arvandus committed an act of treachery against the emperor Anthemius. Probably in 468, or the year before, Arvandus dictated a letter to his secretary addressed to the Gothic king Euric in which he tried to dissuade Euric ‘from concluding peace with ‘the Greek Emperor’ (i.e. Anthemius), urging that instead he should attack the Brittones north of the Loire, and asserting that the law of nations called for a division of Gaul between Visigoth and Burgundian’.

We don’t know if Euric ever got this letter or if he did whether he took any notice of Anthemius’s urgings. We don’t even know if Arvandus’s mention of Brittones was referring to ‘Bretons’ already settled north of the Loire or to an insular British force recently arrived there. But what we do know is that not long afterwards Euric did indeed lead his Goths to fight the British.

Arvandus’s letter must be dated prior to 468, or early in that year, because in 468 he was dismissed from his prefectship of Gaul for a second time and ‘invested with guards’ he was taken as ‘a prisoner bound for Rome’.[16] The Roman Senator Cassiodorus says that Arvandus had wanted to seize the throne; he had ‘wanted to become emperor’.[17]

Roman Senate

Roman Senate

In Rome Arvandus was put on trial for treason before the Roman senate and the ‘intercepted letter’ he had written to Gothic king Euric was produced in evidence against him. He twice acknowledged that the letter was indeed his and was condemned to death for treachery. The later intervention of his friend, the influential Gallo-Roman Sidonius Appolinaris, saved his life and the sentence was commuted to exile on an island.

We know these details of Arvandus’s acts and subsequent fate from a letter Sidonius wrote to his friend Vincentius, probably in about 469/70 after he had returned from Rome where, as the letter makes clear, he had personally witnessed the start of Arvandus’s trial. I have reproduced Sidonius’s letter in full at the end of this essay as it is compelling reading.

Sidonius writes to Riothamus

Next we have a letter Sidonius wrote to the British king Riothamus himself. Sidonius was asking for Riothamus’s intervention and help for a Gallo-Roman landowner, probably living in the Auvergne, whose slaves were being enticed away by the Britannis (Britons or Bretons).

I will write once more in my usual strain, mingling compliment with grievance. Not that I at all desire to follow up the first words of greeting with disagreeable subjects, but things seem to be always happening which a man of my order and in my position can neither mention without unpleasantness, nor pass over without neglect of duty. Yet I do my best to remember the burdensome and delicate sense of honour which makes you so ready to blush for others’ faults. The bearer of this is an obscure and humble person, so harmless, insignificant, and helpless that he seems to invite his own discomfiture; his grievance is that the Brittones are secretly enticing his slaves away. Whether his indictment is a true one, I cannot say; but, if you can only confront the parties and decide the matter on its merits, I think the unfortunate man may be able to make good his charge, if indeed a stranger from the country unarmed, abject and impecunious to boot, has ever a chance of a fair or kindly hearing against adversaries with all the advantages he lacks, arms, astuteness, turbulences, and the aggressive spirit of men backed by numerous friends. Farewell.[18]

Sidonius Apollinaris

Sidonius Apollinaris

It can be implied from the letter that Riothamus must have had influence, or even a leadership position acknowledged by the Romans, over the Britons in future Brittany. Whether he was their king or not is not said. It’s also clear that Sidonius had written to Riothamus on previous occasions; he says: ‘I will write once more in my usual strain.’ Also from his mention of a ‘man of my order’ it is pretty certain that he was already Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand at the time, a position he was elevated to in either in 470 (or maybe late 469) by the emperor Anthemius after his return from Rome.

It is to this rough time i.e. around 469/470 that I would date Sidonius’s letter to Riothamus. A later dating is possible and has been argued for, but seems unlikely to me. From 471 to 474 Clermont-Ferrand (Sidonius’s Episcopal seat) was besieged by the Visigoths (certainly after their defeat of the British) and Sidonius was much concerned with its defence. In 474, when Clermont-Ferrand finally fell, Euric sent Sidonius into exile for two years to Capendu and Bordeaux, before allowing him to return again to Clermont in 476 as bishop. The implication of the letter is that it was written from Clermont-Ferrand to Riothamus who might have been situated somewhere ‘north of the Loire’, and most likely before his defeat by the Goths. As we will see, following Riothamus’s defeat by the Goths the survivors fled to Burgundy and we never hear of them again. Any late, post-battle, dating of this letter to Riothamus must rely on a completely unsubstantiated conjecture concerning a return of the British king to Brittany after he and his fighters had fled to Burgundy.

Chronological résumé

To sum up some of the dating evidence: soon after his elevation to the imperial purple in 467, the Emperor Anthemius had requested the help of the Britons against Euric’s Visigoths who had just renounced their fealty to Rome. Whether these Britons were the British of the settlement of Armorica (the ‘Bretons’) or were Britons of the island of Britain, or both, is not known. Then slightly later, in about 467/8,  Arvandus, the Roman Prefect of Gaul, wrote to the Goths treacherously suggesting they attack the British ‘north of the Loire’ rather than make common cause with the Empire. A large British army led by King Riothamus subsequently arrived in a fleet of ships somewhere along the Atlantic coast and, while seeking to join up with Roman forces, which never came, they were defeated by the Gothic army.

Most historians agree that this battle was fought in 469 or possibly 470. The evidence suggests this is right, although its equation with Déols is doubtful.

What became of the British?

Jordanes tells us that after the battle the British retreated to Burgundy:

Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans…

Gallo_Roman_and_Burgundian__late_5t

Burgundian and Gallo-Roman

The Burgundians had crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul along with various other Germanic tribes in 406. They settled on the Roman left bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe. They seized Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. The Roman emperor Honorius later legitimized their land grab and made them official allies or mercenaries, called foederati. Despite this official Roman status, the Burgundians continued to make raids into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. Exasperated, the Roman general Aëtius called upon his Hunnish mercenaries for help. Although much is still obscure, probably in two engagements in 436/7 Aëtius and the Huns nearly exterminated the Burgundians under their king Gundahar (Gunther).

The contemporary Iberian chronicler Hydatius wrote: “The Burgundians, who had rebelled, were defeated by the Romans under the general Aëtius.” Prosper of Aquitaine, another contemporary, and closer to the events, wrote: “Aëtius crushed [Gundahar], who was king of the Burgundians living in Gaul. In response to his entreaty, Aëtius gave him peace, which the king did not enjoy for long. For the Huns destroyed him and his people root and branch.”

Wagner's Ring Cycle

Wagner’s Ring Cycle

It is alleged that King Gundahar/Gunther and 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered by the Huns. Gundahar was succeeded as king by his son Gunderic.  These events became the kernel of the great German Nibelungenlied epic which so inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas.

Following their defeat Aëtius allowed the surviving Burgundians to settle in Savoy, with a capital in Geneva. In 451 the Burgundians helped Aëtius and his primarily Gothic army defeat Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, a decisive event in European history. Following the defeat Attila withdrew and never threatened Gaul again.

In 455 the Burgundians, under Gunderic and his brother Chilperic, accompanied Theodoric’s Visigoths to Spain to fight the Sueves on behalf of the Romans. After their return Lyon became the Burgundian capital in 461.

So by 469 the Germanic Burgundians, with their capital now in Lyon, were still Roman allies. The Visigoths however had by this time repudiated any nominal allegiance to the Roman Empire and were trying to extend their hegemony further north from their kingdom of Toulouse.

As this report makes clear, Riothamus and the British survivors of the defeat at the hands of the Goths retreated to Burgundy because it was ‘confederate with the Romans’:

Ambrosius Aurelianus

Ambrosius Aurelianus

What became of these British is not known. Some suggest they returned to Britain (if Riothamus was either King Arthur or another Romano-British chieftain such as Ambrosius Aurelianus). Others think they might have returned to Brittany. To be honest we don’t know. Maybe they were even granted lands in Burgundy and blended into the local mix of Gallo-Romans and Germanic Burgundians?

The question remains: why had the defeated British fled to Burgundy? Of course Burgundy offered a safe haven because the Burgundians like the British were Roman allies opposing the threatening Goths. But geographically Burgundy only makes sense if the British defeat at the hands of the Goths took place at a place from where it made more sense to retreat to Burgundy (possibly to Lyon) than it did to flee northwest to the comparatively safe British settlements in Armorica. Where might the battle have been if it wasn’t Déols?

The location of the battle

As well as the fact that it seems that we can date the clash between the Goths and the Britons at Bourges and Déols some years before 469, there are three additional  reasons why I think that the battle is unlikely to have taken place at Déolsand and might well have happened somewhere in the Auvergne.

469First, all historians agree that the main objective of the Goths in these years was to secure an occupation of the Auvergne, and particularly the city of Clermont-Ferrand (Arverna). This the Romans wanted to prevent. It is instructive to note that immediately after mentioning the British defeat Jordanes says: ‘But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…..When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna, where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command.’

From 471 the Goths besieged Clermont-Ferrand, which resisted valiantly under General Ecdicius and Sidonius himself. But the city was finally captured in 474. When the British were defeated just before this siege began, they had been waiting to join up with a Roman force which never came. In fact by this time the ‘forces’ available to the Gallo-Romans were pretty insignificant and what forces there were could likely have been holed up in cities such as Clermont in fear of a coming Gothic attack. As already suggested, it seems likely that the British were expecting to meet the army from Rome led by Emperor Anthemius’s son Anthemiolus, which never arrived and was defeated itself by the Goths near Arles.

In this context a site for the battle somewhere in the Auvergne, possibly somewhere near Clermont, seems possible.

The Auvergne neighbouring Burgundy

The Auvergne neighbouring Burgundy

The second reason for my suggestion of the Auvergne as a likely place for the battle has to do with geography. As mentioned, the Burgundian capital had been established in Lyon in 462. We can couple this fact with Jordanes’ explicit statement that Riothamus ‘having lost a great part of his army… fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans’. Now Burgundy and Lyon are certainly immediate neighbours of the Auvergne and Clermont, whereas under no circumstances could Bourges/Déols be described as neighbourly. Lyon and Bourges are in fact a long way away from each other. In addition, as I have suggested already, if the battle took place at Déols why would the defeated British have marched an enormous distance from there to Burgundy, across dangerous Gothic-invested land, rather than simply return quickly northwest to the safe British settlements ‘north of the Loire’, whether by land or sea?

Finally, as also mentioned already, perhaps the major supporting evidence for the equation of the events at Bourges/Déols with Riothamus’s battle is Jordanes’ mention of the fact that: ‘King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of Ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges.’ Conventionally this city/state of the Bituriges is identified with Bourges, which lies a long way inland in the very north of Aquitaine. But as I have shown this identification is by no means secure. Bituriges could just as well have been further south along the Aquitaine coast, even as far south as Bordeaux, as it might have been somewhere on the more northerly coast from where the British would have had to march a long way to reach Bourges. The evidence is too scanty for us to be certain where this disembarkation took place, but if the city of Clermont-Ferrand was so critical (which it was) then if you want to get there you’d be much better advised, then as now, to land somewhere in Aquitaine, and from there take the direct route to the Auvergne, than you would to land much farther north and face a very long trip indeed via Bourges to get anywhere near Clermont. All this is of course conjecture.

Conclusion

The British defeat at the hands of the Visigoths was not the only time that British (or Bretons as they became) were involved in the centuries-long struggle for the destiny of post-Roman Gaul, but as far as we know it was the first. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if the battle took place at Déols or elsewhere as I am suggesting, but it’s interesting to draw a parallel between the fate of some Celtic British refugees fleeing the ‘English’ and fighting with one Roman emperor and the fate of some English fleeing the Norman conquerors six hundred years later to fight for an eastern Roman emperor (see here).

 

visi funny

Appendix: Sidonius’s letter to Vincentius c. 469/70

THE case of Arvandus distresses me, nor do I conceal my distress, for it is our emperor’s crowning praise that a condemned prisoner may have friends who need not hide their friendship. I was more intimate with this man than it was safe to be with one so light and so unstable, witness the odium lately kindled against me on his account, the flame of which has scorched me for this lapse from prudence. But since I had given my friendship, honour bound me fast, though he on his side has no steadfastness at all; I say this because it is the truth and not to strike him when he is down. For he despised friendly advice and made himself throughout the sport of fortune; the marvel to me is, not that he fell at last, but that he ever stood so long. How often he would boast of weathering adversity, when we, with a less superficial sense of things, deplored the sure disaster of his rashness, unable to call happy any man who only sometimes and  not always deserves the name.

But now for your question as to his government; I will tell you in few words, and with all the loyalty due to a friend however far brought low. During his first term as prefect his rule was very popular; the second was disastrous. Crushed by debt, and living in dread of creditors, he was jealous of the nobles from among whom his successor must needs be chosen. He would make fun of all his visitors, profess astonishment at advice, and spurn good offices; if people called on him too rarely, he showed suspicion; if too regularly, contempt. At last the general hate encompassed him like a rampart; before he was well divested of his authority, he was invested with guards, and a prisoner bound for Rome. Hardly had he set foot in the city when he was all exultation over his fair passage along the stormy Tuscan coast, as if convinced that the very elements were somehow at his bidding.

At the Capitol, the Count of the Imperial Largess, his friend Flavius Asellus, acted as his host and jailer, showing him deference for his prefectship, which seemed, as it were, yet warm, so newly was it stripped from him. Meanwhile, the three envoys from Gaul arrived upon his heels with the provincial decrees2 empowering them to impeach in the public name. They were Tonantius Ferreolus, the ex-prefect, and grandson, on the mother’s side, of the Consul Afranius Syagrius, Thaumastus, and Petronius, all men practised in affairs and eloquent, all conspicuous ornaments of our country. They brought, with other matters entrusted to them by the province, an intercepted letter, which Arvandus’ secretary, now also under arrest, declared to have been  dictated by his master. It was evidently addressed to the King of the Goths, whom it dissuaded from concluding peace with ‘the Greek Emperor’, urging that instead he should attack the Bretons north of the Loire, and asserting that the law of nations called for a division of Gaul between Visigoth and Burgundian.

There was more in the same mad vein, calculated to inflame a choleric king, or shame a quiet one into action. Of course the lawyers found here a flagrant case of treason. These tactics did not escape the excellent Auxanius and myself; in whatever way we might have incurred the impeached man’s friendship, we both felt that to evade the consequences at this crisis of his fate would be to brand us as traitors, barbarians, and poltroons. We at once exposed to the unsuspecting victim the whole scheme which a prosecution, no less astute than alert and ardent, intended to keep dark until the trial; their scheme was to noose in some unguarded reply an adversary rash enough to repudiate the advice of all his friends and rely wholly on his own unaided wits. We told him what to us and to more secret friends seemed the one safe course; we begged him not to give the slightest point away which they might try to extract from him on pretence of its insignificance; their dissimulation would be ruinous to him if it drew incautious admissions in answer to their questions.  When he grasped our point, he was beside himself; he suddenly broke out into abuse, and cried: ‘Begone, you and your nonsensical fears, degenerate sons of prefectorian fathers; leave this part of the affair to  me; it is beyond an intelligence like yours. Arvandus trusts in a clear conscience; the employment of advocates to defend him on the charge of bribery shall be his one concession.’

We came away in low spirits, disturbed less by the insult to ourselves than by a real concern; what right has the doctor to take offence when a man past cure gives way to passion?  Meanwhile, our defendant goes off to parade the Capitol square, and in white raiment too; he finds sustenance in the sly greetings which he receives; he listens with a gratified air as the bubbles of flattery burst about him. He casts curious eyes on the gems and silks and precious fabrics of the dealers, inspects, picks up, unrolls, beats down the prices as if he were a likely purchaser, moaning and groaning the whole time over the laws, the age, the senate, the emperor, and all because they would not right him then and there without investigation.

A few days passed, and, as I learned afterwards (I had left Rome in the interim), there was a full house in the senate-hall. Arvandus proceeded thither freshly groomed and barbered, while the accusers waited the decemvirs’1 summons unkempt and in half-mourning, snatching from him thus the defendant’s usual right, and securing the advantage of suggestion which the suppliant garb confers. The parties were admitted and, as the custom is, took up positions opposite each other. Before the proceedings began, all of prefectorian rank were allowed to sit; instantly Arvandus, with that unhappy impudence of his, rushed forward and forced himself almost into the very bosoms of the judges, while the ex-prefect* gained subsequent credit  and respect by placing himself quietly and modestly amidst his colleagues at the lowest end of the benches, to show that his quality of envoy was his first thought, and not his rank as senator.

While this was going on, absent members of the house came in; the parties stood up and the envoys set forth their charge. They first produced their mandate from the province, then the already-mentioned letter; this was being read sentence by sentence, when Arvandus admitted the authorship without even waiting to be asked. The envoys rejoined, rather cruelly, that the fact of his dictation was obvious. And when the madman, blind to the depth of his fall, dealt himself a deadly blow by repeating the avowal not once, but twice, the accusers raised a shout, and the judges cried as one man that he stood convicted of treason out of his own mouth. Scores of legal precedents were on record to achieve his ruin.

Only at this point, and then not at once, is the wretched man said to have turned white in tardy repentance of his loquacity, recognizing all too late that it is possible to be convicted of high treason for other offences than aspiring to the purple. He was stripped on the spot of all the privileges pertaining to his prefecture, an office which by re-election he had held five years, and consigned to the common jail as one not now first degraded to plebeian rank, but restored to it as his own.

Eye-witnesses report, as the most pathetic feature of all, that as a result of his intrusion upon his judges in all that bravery and smartness while his accusers dressed in black, his pitiable plight won him no pity when he was led off to prison a little later. How, indeed, could anyone be much moved at his fate, seeing him haled to the quarries or hard labour still all trimmed and pomaded like a fop?  Judgement was deferred a bare fortnight. He was then condemned to death, and flung into the island of the Serpent of Epidaurus. There, an object of compassion even to his enemies, his elegance gone, spewed, as it were, by Fortune out of the land of the living, he now drags out by benefit of Tiberius’ law his respite of thirty days after sentence, shuddering through the long hours at the thought of hook and Gemonian stairs, and the noose of the brutal executioner.

We, of course, whether in Rome or out of it, are doing all we can; we make daily vows, we redouble prayers and supplications that the imperial clemency may suspend the stroke of the drawn sword, and rather visit a man already half dead with confiscation of property, and exile. But whether Arvandus has only to expect the worst, or must actually undergo it, he is surely the most miserable soul alive if, branded with such marks of shame; he has any other desire than to die.

Notes and references:

[1] Léon Fleuriot,  Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration. Paris 1980.

[2] For the date 441 see: R. Burgess, The Gallic Chronicle of 511: A New Critical Edition with a Brief Introduction, in Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources. ed. R. W. Mathisen and D. Shantzer. Aldershot  2001.

[3] James Ingram, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London 1823 and 1912: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang05.asp

[4] M. Winterbottom, Gildas, De Excidio britanniae, Chichester 1978.

[5] T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons 300-1064, Oxford 2014, p. 58.

[6] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, ed. and trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1974.

[7] R. Mathisen,  Anthemius (12 April 467 – 11 July 472 A.D.), De Imperatoribus Romanis.

[8] Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, Oxford  2002, pp.102-103.

[9] MacGeorge, Warlords.

[10] Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, ed. and trans. Charles Christopher Mierow, The Gothic History of Jordanes, 1915.

[11] The Gallic Chronicle of 511: A New Critical Edition with a Brief Introduction, in Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources. ed. R. W. Mathisen and D. Shantzer. Aldershot  2001.

[12] Idem

[13] Léon Fleuriot,  Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration. Paris 1980.

[14]For example: John Morris, The Age of Arthur, a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, London 1973.

[15]Geoffrey  Ashe,  The Discovery of King Arthur. New York 1985.

[16]  O. M. Dalton, ed. and trans., The Letters of Sidonius, Oxford 1915..

[17] James J. O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, Berkeley 1979.

[18] Dalton, The Letters of Sidonius

In the year 469 (or 470) a large Celtic British army under the leadership of a king called Riothamus was defeated in a battle in Gaul (now France) by the Visigoths under their king Euric. Who Riothamus’s Britons or Bretons were, where they had come from, what they were doing in France and where this battle was actually fought will be the subject of a forthcoming essay. Some serious historians have even suggested that Riothamus was the legendary British King Arthur, although I doubt it. What is clear is that after their defeat at the hands of the Goths the British survivors retreated to Burgundy. They were never heard of again. But why Burgundy?

The Burgundians had crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul along with various other Germanic tribes in 406. They settled on the Roman left bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe. They seized Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. The Roman emperor Honorius later legitimized their land grab and made them official allies or mercenaries, called foederati. Despite this official Roman status, the Burgundians continued to make raids into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. Exasperated, the Roman general Aëtius called upon his Hunnish mercenaries for help. Although much is still obscure, probably in two engagements in 436/7 Aëtius and the Huns nearly exterminated the Burgundians under their king Gundahar (Gunther).

Aetius 'Attila's Nemesis'

Aetius ‘Attila’s Nemesis’

The contemporary Iberian chronicler Hydatius wrote: “The Burgundians, who had rebelled, were defeated by the Romans under the general Aëtius.” Prosper of Aquitaine, another contemporary, and closer to the events, wrote: “Aëtius crushed [Gundahar], who was king of the Burgundians living in Gaul. In response to his entreaty, Aëtius gave him peace, which the king did not enjoy for long. For the Huns destroyed him and his people root and branch.”

It is alleged that King Gundahar/Gunther and 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered by the Huns. Gundahar was succeeded as king by his son Gunderic.  These events became the kernel of the great German Nibelungenlied epic which so inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas.

Following their defeat Aëtius allowed the surviving Burgundians to settle in Savoy, with a capital in Geneva. In 451 the Burgundians helped Aëtius and his primarily Gothic army defeat Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, a decisive event in European history. Following the defeat Attila withdrew and never threatened Gaul again.

The Kingdom of Burgundy in the late fifth century

The Kingdom of Burgundy in the late fifth century

In 455 the Burgundians, under Gunderic and his brother Chilperic, accompanied Theodoric’s Visigoths to Spain to fight the Sueves on behalf of the Romans. After their return Lyon became the Burgundian capital in 461.

So by 469 the Germanic Burgundians, with their capital now in Lyon, were still Roman allies. The Visigoths however had by this time repudiated any nominal allegiance to the Roman Empire and were trying to extend their hegemony further north from their kingdom of Toulouse.

Here we can introduce the description of the battle between the British and the Goths in 469/70. It comes from the History of the Goths written by the sixth-century Gothic Roman bureaucrat Jordanes:

Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own. Anthemius, the Emperor, receiving intelligence of this, immediately invited the aid of the Britons, whose King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges. Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them leading an innumerable army, and fighting for a long time, overcame Riothimus, the king of the Britons, before the Romans had joined company with him. Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…..When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna (Clermont- Ferrand), where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command. He was a senator of most renowned family and the son of Avitus, a recent emperor who had usurped the reign for a few days–for Avitus held the rule for a few days before Olybrius, and then withdrew of his own accord to Placentia, where he was ordained bishop. His son Ecdicius strove for a long time with the Visigoths, but had not the power to prevail. So he left the country and (what was more important) the city of Arverna to the enemy and betook himself to safer regions.

As this report makes clear, Riothamus and the British survivors of the defeat at the hands of the Goths retreated to Burgundy because it was ‘confederate with the Romans’: ‘Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans.’

British Brittany

British Brittany

What became of these British is not known. Some suggest they returned to Britain (if Riothamus was either King Arthur or another Romano-British chieftain such as Ambrosius Aurelianus,). Others think they might have returned to Brittany. To be honest we don’t know. Maybe they were even granted lands in Burgundy and blended into the local mix of Gallo-Romans and Germanic Burgundians?

The question remains: why had the defeated British fled to Burgundy? Of course Burgundy offered a safe haven because the Burgundians like the British were Roman allies opposing the threatening Goths. But geographically Burgundy only makes sense if the location of the British defeat at the hands of the Goths took place at a place from where it made more sense to retreat to Burgundy (possibly to Lyon) than it did to flee north to the comparatively safe British settlements in Armorica (now called Brittany).

I will explore these issues in a forthcoming article. Here I would just like to point out that in the mid-sixth century British Celts were intimately involved in the battle for the future of what is now France.

Das Nibelungenlied

Das Nibelungenlied

‘They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.’Tacitus quoting the first-century Caledonian chieftain Calgacus

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the English resisted and rebelled for some years, although ultimately in vain. There was the rebellion of the Northern earls and the resistance of Hereward the Wake and Eadric the Wild, to name just three. The response of the conquerors was brutal and involved regional ethnic genocide, such as was meted out during the misnamed Harrying of the North. Ultimately the Norman French kept control of England as the Romans had done in Britain and elsewhere. Tacitus, the first-century Roman senator and historian, quoted the British chieftain Calgacus: ‘They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.’

Eadric 'the Wild' overcomes one of the defenders of William fitzOsbern's wooden castle at Hereford

Eadric ‘the Wild’ overcomes one of the defenders of William fitzOsbern’s wooden castle at Hereford

Both before and after all this mass resistance was finally crushed, individual Englishmen, or small groups of them, would ‘surreptitiously slaughter’ the Norman French ‘the moment their backs were turned’.[1] In the years following the Conquest, as the French expropriation of English lands intensified, large numbers of English thegns fled overseas, many eventually finding their way to the Byzantine empire where they were soon to become the main element in the Varangian Guard.[2] Other thegns plus the vast majority of common English people did not have this option, they had to stay in England. Some took to the woods. The Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis tells us that the Normans called these ‘resistance fighters’ silvatici – the men of the woods. The English, it is said, called them the same thing in their own language: green men. A tradition of resistance and rebellion against unwanted masters that lies at the heart of the later Robin Hood (‘Robin du Bois’) legend

The French conquerors had to take great care to avoid being attacked by a resentful English population. Wherever they went it had to be accompanied by armed guards. English-born men who collaborated with the invaders had to watch out too. One such was Aethelhelm, the abbot of Abingdon from 1071 to 1084. He had been a monk in the Norman monastery of Jumièges and seemed to have come to despise his own people. While abbot at Abingdon he prohibited the celebration of the feast days of the English saint Aethelwold and the ‘unofficial’ saint Edward the Confessor, referring to them as ‘rustic Englishmen’ (Anglici rustici). The Chronicle of Abingdon Abbey tells us that he:

deemed it necessary never to go about without an armed retinue, for, in the midst of the conspiracies which broke out almost daily against the king, he felt compelled to take measures for his own protection.[3]

To help protect the conquerors, Frenchmen as they called themselves, from being murdered by the English, King William introduced a ‘new law’ known as the ‘murdrum’. Marc Morris writes in The Norman Conquest:

By this law if a Norman was found murdered, the onus was placed on the lord of the murderer to produce him within five days or face a ruinous fine. If the culprit remained at large despite his lord’s financial ruin, the penalty was simply transferred to the local community as a whole, and levied until such time as the murderer was produced… The murdrum fine conjures the vivid picture of Englishmen up and down the country, continuing to vent their anger against their Norman occupiers by picking them off individually whenever the opportunity presented itself.[4]

The circumstances surrounding William’s introduction or reintroduction[5] of the murdrum fine was made clear in the late twelfth century by the Norman Richard fitz Nigel (c.1130 – 1198). Richard was an administrator, writer, and bishop of London. His most famous surviving work is the Dialogue of the Exchequer (Dialogus de Scaccario). [6]

This was composed in the late 1170s…  The work takes the form of a dialogue between a master and a student. It is divided into two parts, the first dealing primarily with the staff and structure of the exchequer, the second with the operation of one of its sessions. Also included is a variety of incidental, often historical, material.[7]

The Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest

In chapter 10 of the Dialogue, titled ‘What murder is, and why so called?’, Fitz Nigel defined murdrum as ‘the secret death of somebody, whose slayer is not known… ‘. It was ‘hidden’ or ‘occult’. He continues:

Now in the primitive state of the kingdom after the Conquest those who were left of the Anglo-Saxon subjects secretly laid ambushes for the suspected and hated race of the Normans, and, here and there, when opportunity offered, killed them secretly in the woods and in remote places: as vengeance for whom when the kings and their ministers had for some years, with exquisite kinds of tortures, raged against the Anglo-Saxons; and they, nevertheless, had not, in consequence of these measures, altogether desisted…

He then described how ‘a plan was hit upon’ whereby when ‘a Norman was found killed’ a large fine would be imposed on the ‘hundred’ in which he was found. He then describes how this operated.

fitz 2Importantly this murdrum fine was to be imposed only for the murder of a Norman or other Frenchman; murders of Anglo-Saxons, i.e. English, were excluded. The student then asks the master: ‘Ought not the occult death of the Anglo-Saxon, like that of a Norman, to be reputed murder?’. This was obviously a question many English had and probably still were asking.[8] Fitz Nigel’s answer tells us a lot. He replies that originally the murder fine was not meant to be levied for any murder of an Englishman, adding that ‘during the time that the English and Normans have now dwelt together, and mutually married and given in marriage, the nations have become so intermingled that one can hardly tell today I speak of freemen who is of English and who of Norman race’.

He added that this intermingling didn’t of course extend to the majority of English people: ‘the bondsmen who are called villani.’ These villani still being ‘not free, if their lords object, to depart from the condition of their station’. Fitz Nigel was talking here of conditions in England in the late twelfth century when the fine was still being imposed, but by now probably as much as a simple revenue raising device as a blatant tool of a conqueror’s repression, as it had been when introduced.

Answering another question concerning the supposed ‘mercy’ of the Conqueror (i.e. William the Bastard) towards ‘the race of the English’, who were ‘subjugated and suspected by him’, Fitz Nigel answers that he will tell of what he has heard ‘on these matters from the natives themselves’. It is worth quoting this answer in full:

After the conquest of the kingdom, after the just overthrow of the rebels, when the king himself and the king’s nobles went over the new places, a diligent inquiry was made as to who there were who, contending in war against the king had saved themselves through highs. To all of these, and even to the heirs of those who had fallen in battle, all hope of the lands and estates and revenues which they had before possessed was precluded: for it was thought much for them even to enjoy the privilege of being alive under their enemies. But those who, having been called to the war, had not yet come together, or, occupied with family or any kind of necessary affairs had not been present, when, in course of time, by their devoted service they had gained the favour of their lords, they began to have possessions for themselves alone; without hope of hereditary possession, but according to the pleasure of their lords. But as time went on, when, becoming hateful to their masters, they were here and there driven from their possessions, and there was no one to restore what had been taken away, a common complaint of the natives came to the king to the effect that, thus hateful to all and despoiled of their property, they would be compelled to cross to foreign lands. Counsel at length having been taken on these matters, it was decided that what, their merits demanding, a legal pact having been entered into, they had been able to obtain from their masters, should be conceded to them by inviolable right: but that, however, they should claim nothing for themselves by right of heredity from the time of the conquest of the race. And it is manifest with what discreet consideration this provision was made, especially since they would thus be bound to consult their own advantage in every way, and to strive henceforth by devoted service to gain the favour of their lords. So, therefore, whoever, belonging to the conquered race, possesses estates or anything of the kind, he has acquired them not because they seemed to be due to him by reason of heredity, but because his merits alone demanding, or some pact intervening, he has obtained them.

As Fitz Nigel makes abundantly clear (remember these are the words of a French-speaking Norman administrator although supposedly reporting what he had been told by the ‘native’ English), the English could ‘claim nothing for themselves by right of heredity from the time of the conquest of their race’. Anyone ‘belonging to the conquered race’ could only possess ‘estates or anything of the kind’ with the agreement and forbearance of their French lord and never through any ‘heredity right’.

Robin Hood (Robin du Bois)

Robin Hood (Robin du Bois)

To repeat somewhat, the murdrum fine did not extend to any Englishman who was murdered. The law was explicitly introduced to help deter the English from murdering their Norman French conquerors and to punish the English community when they did so. If a Norman lord could prove that the person murdered was English he would avoid paying the fine. This became known as the ‘Presentment of Englishry’ and was not abolished until the late fourteenth century.

England has become a residence for foreigners and the property of strangers. At the present time there is no English earl nor bishop nor abbot; foreigners all they prey upon the riches and vitals of England.

William of Malmesbury, 1135.[9]

 

The Body of Harold Brought Before William the Conqueror, 1844-61 by Brown, Ford Madox at Manchester

The Body of Harold Brought Before William the Conqueror, 1844-61 by Brown, Ford Madox at Manchester

 

 

Notes and references:

[1] Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest, London, 2012, p. 262.

[2] See: http://thewildpeak.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/exile-rather-than-servitude-the-english-leave-for-constantinople/

[3] John Hudson, ed. Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis: The History of the Church of Abingdon Volume 1, 2007, Oxford.

[4] Morris, Conquest, p. 262-263.

[5] It has been argued by Bruce. R. O’Brien that this murdrum fine had actually already been introduced by King Knut. See: From Mordor to Murdrum, The Preconquest Origin and Norman Revival of the Murder Fine, Speculum, Vol. 71, No. 2, 1996, pp. 321-357. But as Marc Morris rightly says: ‘Even if this is true, and the law was simply revived by William, it does not diminish its value as evidence for conditions in England after the Norman Conquest’, see: Morris, Conquest, p. 385.

[6] E. Amt & S. D. Church, eds. and trans., Dialogus de Scaccario, and Constitutio Domus Regis: The Dialogue of the Exchequer, and the Disposition of the King’s Household, Oxford, 2007; Online English translation:     http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/excheq.asp#b1p10.

[7] John Hudson, ‘Richard fitz Nigel (c.1130–1198)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9619, accessed 15 May 2014]

[8] This law was not abolished until the fourteenth century.

[9] Quoted in the excellent:  Peter Rex, The English Resistance, The underground war against the Normans, 2009,  p.7.

‘The very fact that the Danes gained not only an ascendancy in many parts of England during the Anglo-Saxon dynasties but even the government of them all, is a proof that they were at that period a race of individuals superior to the natives of the land… These people formed a striking contrast to the oppressed race of the Anglo-Saxons.’  S. W. Partington.[1]

‘Vikings had a profound impact on the history of the English-speaking people. In the period from the first recorded raids in the late eighth century, until the conquest of England by Knútr in 1016, the political geography, culture, and identities of the Anglo-Saxons were transformed.’ Clare Downham.[2]

The arrival of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in East Anglia in 865 was the start of the Scandinavian settlement of England. We know a good deal about the leaders of this army and of the battles between them and the English kings in the years and decades to come. We also know something of how the Danelaw came into existence, as well as the relations of these Northmen with the Irish, the Northumbrians, the Picts and the Cumbrians (the Strathclyde British). Yet where did the Great Army originally come from? The sources we have are few, but, I think, they do allow us to propose the view that the Great Army of 865 came originally from Frisia and indeed probably from the important viking base on the island of Walcheren at the mouth of the River Scheldt in what is now the Netherlands.[3]

The Great Heathen Army

The Great Heathen Army

Although Scandinavian ‘Vikings’ had first appeared in the British Isles, including Ireland, in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, the Scandinavian settlement of England didn’t really start in earnest until the arrival of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in the east of England in 865. Before this the Northmen had already  made several major raids on England, for example the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 840 says that King Æthelwulf of Wessex was defeated at Carhampton in Somerset after 35 viking ships had landed in the area:

A.D. 840. This year King Æthelwulf fought at Charmouth with thirty-five ship’s-crews, and the Danes remained masters of the place. The Emperor Louis died this year.[4]

The Frankish Annals of St. Bertin reported the same incident but under the year 844: ‘The Northmen launched a major attack on the island of Britain. After a battle lasting three days, the Northmen emerged the winners – plundering, looting, slaughtering everywhere. They wielded power over the land at will.’[5] Despite this, when the Scandinavians returned again in force in 851 the king of Wessex, Æthelwulf, together with his sons Æthelbald and Æthelstan, was able to secure rare victories:

A.D. 851. This year Alderman Ceorl, with the men of Devonshire, fought the heathen army at Wemburg, and after making great slaughter obtained the victory. The same year King Athelstan and Alderman Elchere (Ealhhere) fought in their ships, and slew a large army at Sandwich in Kent, taking nine ships and dispersing the rest. The heathens now for the first time remained over winter in the Isle of Thanet. The same year came three hundred and fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames; the crew of which went upon land, and stormed Canterbury and London; putting to flight Beorhtwulf, king of the Mercians, with his army; and then marched southward over the Thames into Surrey. Here Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald, at the head of the West-Saxon army, fought with them at Ockley, and made the greatest slaughter of the heathen army that we have ever heard reported to this present day. There also they obtained the victory.[6]

Sandwich - Britain's first naval battle

Sandwich – Britain’s first naval battle

The English naval victory at Sandwich was described by Sir Frank Stenton as ‘the first naval battle in recorded English history’.[7] ‘Ealhhere’s death in battle against Vikings is recorded c. 853. Æthelstan is not mentioned after 851 and presumably died before Æthelwulf went to Rome in 855 as he was not included in arrangements for government of the kingdom during his father’s absence.’[8]

The Scandinavians attacked Winchester in 860. Then it wasn’t until 865 that they once more appeared in force in England, and this time they came to stay. The entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 865 to 867 read:

A.D. 865. This year sat the heathen army in the isle of Thanet, and made peace with the men of Kent, who promised money therewith; but under the security of peace, and the promise of money, the army in the night stole up the country, and overran all Kent eastward.

A.D. 866. This year Ethelred, brother of Ethelbert, took to the West-Saxon government; and the same year came a large heathen army into England, and fixed their winter-quarters in East Anglia, where they were soon horsed; and the inhabitants made peace with them.

A.D. 867. This year the army went from the East-Angles over the mouth of the Humber to the Northumbrians, as far as York. And there was much dissension in that nation among themselves; they had deposed their king Osbert, and had admitted Aella, who had no natural claim. Late in the year, however, they returned to their allegiance, and they were now fighting against the common enemy; having collected a vast force, with which they fought the army at York; and breaking open the town, some of them entered in. Then was there an immense slaughter of the Northumbrians, some within and some without; and both the kings were slain on the spot. The survivors made peace with the army… [9]

Scandinavian settlement in Britain

Scandinavian settlement in Britain

All this is reasonably well known, at least to those who take an interest in such things. It was the Great Army which appeared in 865 that was the spearhead of the establishment of major Scandinavian settlements in eastern and northern England, later generally called the Danelaw, but also in Lancashire and Cumbria, areas often not designated as part of the Danelaw. These Scandinavians broke the power of the Anglian/English kingdom of Northumbria and very nearly destroyed Wessex too. For decades to come kings of Wessex, such as Alfred ‘the Great’ and his descendants, were constantly preoccupied with fighting off the ‘Danes’, and it was not until nearly a hundred years later that they succeeded (at least for a time) in nullifying the Scandinavian threat. The Scots, Welsh and Cumbrians (the Strathclyde British) also had to deal with them as best they could.

But who were the leaders of these Scandinavian armies? And, perhaps more contentiously, where had these Scandinavians originally come from? I will try to answer these questions without resort to later Norse Sagas telling of ‘Ívarr the Boneless’ and his supposed father Ragnarr Loðbrók (Hairy-Breeches), fascinating though they undoubtedly are.[10]

The leaders of the Great Heathen Army

Ivan Kaye as 'Ivar the Boneless'

Ivan Kaye as ‘Ivar the Boneless’

Regarding the first question, there is quite an abundance of near contemporary and later evidence that a chieftain called Ívarr and some of his brothers were the leaders of the Great Heathen Army of 865 and were still important in subsequent years. Ívarr and his brothers were the leaders of a group of Scandinavians who first appeared in Ireland in 851 or slightly before. They were referred to in Irish sources and in some Welsh and English sources as the Dubgaill, or ‘dark foreigners’, to differentiate them from earlier Scandinavians settlers in Ireland called the Finngaill, or ‘fair foreigners’.[11] The Annals of Ulster tell us that the leaders of the Dubgaill were Ívarr and his ‘associates’ (actually brothers) Óláfr, Asl and Hálfdan. Ívarr’s descendants were to go on to create a powerful dynasty of ‘Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland’, as extensively described by Clare Downham in her authoritative book of this name.[12] We know much about the activities of brothers Óláfr, Ívarr and Asl in Britain and Ireland from 853 onwards. But eventually, as Downham says:

Ívarr travelled to East Anglia in 865 as part of the “great army”.[13]

The late tenth-century Chronicle of Athelweard is unequivocal about this; it says that ‘the fleets of the tyrant Ívarr (Iguuar)’ arrived from the north.[14] In discussing the martyrdom of the East Anglian king Edmund, Abbo of Fleury (d. 1004) wrote that Ívarr and Ubba were the leaders of the Scandinavian army: ‘Eventually it happened that the Danes came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom. In the fleet were the foremost chieftains Ivar and Ubbi, united through the devil.’[15]

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle for the year 878 mentions the defeat of ‘the brother of Ingwaer (Ívarr) and Healfdene (Hálfdan)’ in Devon.[16] This brother was probably Ubbi/Ubba, but the entry also confirms that Hálfdan and Ívarr were brothers. Marios Costambeys  in her biography of Ívarr writes: ‘As well as Hálfdan, text F of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle names Ubba along with Ívarr as heading the army in East Anglia, and the life of St Oswald by Byrhtferth (fl. c.986–c.1016) records that Oswald’s grandfather had come to England from Scandinavia in the army led by Huba and Hinwaer.’[17]

According to Simeon of Durham’s History of the Church of Durham, admittedly a late and sometimes unreliable source, the army was made up of ‘people from all quarters, that is to say, of the Danes and Frisians, and other pagan nations, who arrived here in an immense fleet, under their kings and dukes, Halfdene, Inguar, Hubba, Beicsecg, Guthrun, Oscytell, Amund, Sidroc and another duke of the same name, Osbern, Frana, and Harold.’[18] Note the ‘Frisians’ here.

King Edmund is killed by the Grand Army

King Edmund is killed by the Grand Army

Although much more could be, and has been, discussed regarding the leadership and deeds of the Great Army of 865, as well as their subsequent fate, I think enough has been said to establish the near certainty that among its leaders were Ívarr and some of his brothers. It was in fact, to use the words of Clare Downham, ‘a family enterprise’. Most historians agree. Alex Wolf in From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 says that Ívarr ‘seems to have led the force from at least 856 following the death of their leader Horm in a failed invasion of Anglesey’.[19] Robert Ferguson says the Great Army was ‘under the command of brothers named Halfdan and Ingvar’ [20]

Summing up Marios Costambeys says:

On the assumption that these sources are correct in identifying this Ívarr as a leader of the great army, his movements can be traced through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s record of the progress of the army through England. After wintering in East Anglia from autumn 865, the army moved to York, which it took on 1 November 866. A Northumbrian attempt to retake the city was repelled and the Northumbrian kings Osberht and Ælle killed on 21 March 867. The vikings established Ecgberht as their puppet king in the north before moving, in the autumn of 867, to Nottingham in Mercia. The army returned to York in 868, staying for a year before crossing Mercia to Thetford in East Anglia. At this point they engaged the East Angles, killing their king Edmund (d. 869).[21]

Where had this Scandinavian Great Army originally come from?

History Channel's Ragnar Lodbrok

History Channel’s Ragnar Lodbrok

There is much legendary information regarding where Ívarr and his family may have originally come from. For example, according to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Norse sagas Ívarr was ‘Ívarr the Boneless’, the son of the legendary king Ragnarr Loðbrók.[22] These fascinating sagas about Ragnarr Loðbrók and his sons are unfortunately outside the scope of this essay. Clare Downham says simply that ‘none of these accounts is credible’.[23] She adds: ‘While medieval writers seem to have been as interested as modern historians about Ívarr’s origins, it is perhaps wiser to accept that we do not know what these really were.’[24] This is of course worthy and understandable scholarly caution, but maybe we can suggest something more.

Alex Woolf has highlighted the fact that in chapters 10 and 14 of the Historia de sancto Cuthberto, an early eleventh century compilation possibly based on earlier sources,[25] there are two references to Ubba, ‘an associate, and (according to Geoffrey Gaimer) brother, of Ívarr, as dux of the Frisians’.[26]

Chapter 10: For Ubba dux of the Frisians, with a great army of Danes, came into the kingdom and on Palm Sunday approached the city.

Chapter 14: The army which Ubba dux of the Frisians and Healfdene King of the Danes had led into England divided into three parts; one rebuilt the city of York, cultivated the surrounding land and stayed there.[27]

What early Viking Dublin might have looked like

What early Viking Dublin might have looked like

One of the unfortunate tendencies of modern historiography is that events tend to become geographically compartmentalized. Some English historians of the Viking Age tend not to comment on events outside England. Where they do fully take account of information from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, then the concentration is still on Britain and Ireland and events around the Irish Sea.  French historians show a similar tendency when things happen outside the Frankish empire. But the early viking raids and settlements in Europe were all related in some way, they were not separate national events. Large viking fleets and armies were expensive and rare things. There were arguably never more than two significant Scandinavian fleets in existence at any one time, and this certainly includes the mid-800s. This is one reason why I believe that Alex Woolf is probably right when he suggests a strong connection between Ívarr and his family and Frisia. Regarding the Great Army Woolf says:

It is now generally agreed that they arrived in Britain directly from Ireland where Ívarr, the senior partner by 865, had been active for at least a decade.[28]

Having discussed the ‘Black Gentiles’ (or ‘Black Foreigners’) in Ireland, led by  Ívarr and his putative brother Óláfr, Woolf goes in to say:

It seems likely the Black Gentiles approached Ireland around the southern end of Britain and they may have been a portion of the Danish force described as assaulting Frisia in the Annals of St Bertin under the year 850, and perhaps even the same portion of that fleet, comprising 350 ships, which entered the Thames early in 851, sacking Canterbury and London and defeating Beorhtwulf of Mercia in pitched battle before being defeated in turn by the West Saxon Æthelwulf and Æthelbald.[29]

He adds that ‘the suspicion that the great army was in origin a portion of the force Rorik led to Frisia in 850’ finds support in the two mentions of Ubba in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto referred to above.

The Vikings plunder Dorestad

The Vikings plunder Dorestad

I find this reasoning compelling. Simon Coupland has analysed who was involved in Frisia at the time, and where, in his excellent article From poachers to gamekeepers: Scandinavian warlords and Carolingian kings; readers are encouraged to consult this work.[30] Regarding Woolf’s suggestion that Ívarr and his kinsmen might have come from Frisia, and might indeed have been the vikings who appeared in the Thames in the year 851, this gains strong circumstantial support from the generally reliable Frankish Annals of St Bertin, which under the year 850 say:

Hárekr, king of the Norsemen, was attacked by two members of his family and war ensued. They were induced to make peace by a partition of the realm. Hrœrekr, the nephew of Haraldr, who had recently defected from Lothar, raised whole armies of Norsemen with a vast number of ships and laid waste Frisia and the island of Betuwe and other places in that neighbourhood by sailing up the Rhine and the Waal. Lothar, since he could not crush him, received him into his allegiance and granted him Dorestad and other counties. Another band of Norsemen plundered the inhabitants of Mempisc, Thérouanne and other coastal districts, while yet others attacked the island of Britain and the English but they were beaten by the English with the aid of our Lord Jesus Christ.[31]

Note the final sentence says that ‘while yet others attacked the island of Britain and the English but they were beaten by the English with the aid of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Norse fleet

Norse fleet

The attack up the Thames in 851 was the only appearance of Scandinavians in Britain in this or indeed the previous year; it is pretty obviously the attack referred to in the Annals of St Bertin. The attack was indeed ‘beaten by the English’. As we have seen, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle reported for 851: ‘The same year came three hundred and fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames…. the West-Saxon army fought with them at Ockley, and made the greatest slaughter of the heathen army that we have ever heard reported to this present day. There also they obtained the victory.’

Some additional, though not critical, support for the view that the Scandinavians who arrived in the Thames in 851 came from Frisia is the name Scaldingi. As Alex Woolf says, the name Scaldingi probably means people of the Scald, i.e. the region of the River Scheldt in Frisia. It is the name given three times in the Historia de sancto Cuthberto when referring to the leaders of to the Great Army, Hálfdan and Ívarr. For example: ‘Scaldingi venirent in Anglicam terram dederunt Ceolvulfus rex et episcopus Esred… ‘[32]

I will quote Alex Woolf’s conjecture in full:

Belgian Vikings?

It is possible that we should imagine Ubba as coming directly from Frisia to join his ’Irish’ kinsmen in England. The term Scalding, used in several places in the Historia as the descriptor for what the Chronicle calls mycel here, ‘the Great Army’, seems to mean ‘people from the River Scheldt’. This river is called Scald in Old English and Old East Flemish, and Scaldis in Latin, and may indicate that, within Frisia, Ubba came specifically from the island of Walcheren which lies in the mouth of the Scheldt. Walcheren was occupied by Danes for much of the ninth century, following the Frankish King Lothar’s grant of the island to the exiled Danish Prince Harold in 841. Lothar’s intention was that Harold would act as a poacher come gamekeeper and defend the coast against other Scandinavian raiders. If this identification of the Great Army is correct then it suggests that the core of the ‘Black Gentile’ force had left the Scheldt fourteen years before arriving in England and there is little evidence that they would make any attempt to settle down for a further decade. If they were indeed part of Harold’s settlement on the Scheldt then they had left Denmark nearly a quarter of a century before arriving in England. Many of them had presumably been born in Frisia. If this is the case then these ‘Danes’ had been cohabiting with Christians speaking a West Germanic dialect almost identical to Old English for a very long time. This may explain, in part, their skill at playing the system. The settlement on Walcheren survived, in one form or another, until about 915.[33]

Walcheren 1573

Walcheren 1573

Now the mention of ‘Belgian Vikings’ is a little anachronistic as ‘Belgium’ didn’t really exist until 1830. Although Walcheren is certainly ‘Frisian’ it is now located in the Netherlands. Yet the island of Walcheren and Frisia in general were without any doubt pivotal places for the Scandinavians at this time. Walcheren was for a long time perhaps the most important base and lair for Scandinavian fleets and armies along the North Sea coast.

The equation of Scaldingi with Danes from the river and estuary of the Scheldt (where Walcheren is situated) was proposed by Felix Lieberman in 1925[34] and is based, in part, on an entry in the Annals of Lindisfarne for 911 referring to the viking Rollo taking possession of Normandy: ‘Scaldi Rollo duce possident Normanniam.’[35] This reading has not been uncontested. An alternative view sees Scaldi and Scaldingi as being derived from a hypothesized (and unrecorded) ninth-century Old Norse word *skealdur meaning ‘shieldmen’. Roberta Frank says: ‘We can be fairly confident that Scaldingi means Scyldingas “shieldmen” or “descendants of Scyld” and not “men of the Scheldt… “’ [36]

shieldI find this stretching onomastics a little too far, but it could be true. In addition, calling only this one group of vikings ‘shieldmen’ makes no historical sense – the Anglo-Saxons and Celts had shields too, why were the vikings’ shields different enough for them to bestow a name on the warriors themselves?[37]

As Alex Woolf says, the River Scheldt ‘is called Scald in Old English and Old East Flemish, and Scaldis in Latin’. In addition, the author of the Historia de sancto Cuthberto, whether Simeon of Durham or not,uses Scaldingi only when referring to Hálfdan and his brother Ívarr, elsewhere when he talks of the vikings he never uses this word.

Even if Scaldingi doesn’t mean ‘people from the River Scheldt’, the fact that Ubba was a ‘duke’ of the Frisians strongly implies that he had come with his fleet from Frisia, and also in all likelihood from the viking base on the island of Walcheren. If Ívarr, Óláfr, Hálfdan and Asl were his brothers, as our sources strongly suggest they were, then the Great Army of 865 was indeed a ‘family enterprise’ as Clare Downham puts it. This would imply that Ívarr, Óláfr and Asl, the ‘three kings of the foreigners’ whose activities are repeatedly recorded from 853 onwards in the Irish chronicles, had originally come from Frisia. If they really were the leaders of that part of the Frisian-based viking fleet that the Annals of St Bertin and The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tell us arrived in the Thames in 851 then, as Alex Woolf suggests, it is more than likely that following their defeat at the hands of King Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald they moved on to Ireland, and from there ‘The Dynasty of Ívarr’ spread.

The timing of this move from the Thames to Ireland makes sense. Clare Downham writes:

Then in 851 a band of ‘Dark Foreigners’ arrived in Dublin and inflicted a great slaughter on the ‘Far Foreigners’… In 852, the ‘dark foreigners’ defeated the ‘fair foreigners’ in battle at Carlingford Lough. Then in 853 Óláfr son of the king of Laithlinn arrived in Ireland, and the vikings in Ireland submitted to him. This Óláfr was a kinsman, and perhaps more specifically a brother, of Ívarr.[38]

downham 2As Óláfr arrived in Ireland in 853 then the dark foreigners who had come two years before in 851 might have been led by Ívarr and/or possibly his brothers Asl and Hálfdan. We don’t know the brothers’ respective ages, but certainly Ívarr and Óláfr, the ‘son of the king of Laithlinn’, were the senior family partners in the years to come.[39]

Actually the Scandinavian arrivals in Dublin of 851 and 853 weren’t the first time these foreigners had appeared in Ireland. In 848, a viking leader called Tomrar/Thorir ‘was slain in battle in Leinster’. He was said to be a deputy or heir of the king of Laithlinn and was thus linked in some way with Óláfr, ‘the son of the king of Laithlinn’, who came in 853.[40]

In summary, if all this conjecture is true then the proximate origin of Ívarr’s dynasty, which played such an important role in Ireland and Britain for the next hundred years, was Frisia, and in all likelihood they had arrived from the important viking base on the island of Walcheren. Many other viking raiders in Europe at the time set out from here too; to give just one example, the Annals of Fulda tell of what became of another part of the Frisian fleet that split in 850:

The Norsemen under their leader Guðröðr came up the Seine and plundered Charles’s kingdom. Lothar was called to help with their expulsion, and thought that he was to come with his men to fight, but Charles changed his plan secretly, received Guðröðr with his men into the alliance of his kingdom and gave them land to live on. Lothar, seeing that his coming was pointless, returned to his own lands.[41]

Danish or Norwegian?

I don’t want to get into the hoary question of which of the vikings who came to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were ‘Danish’ and which were ‘Norwegian’.[42] At the time we are talking about terms such as ‘Nordmanni’ (Northmen) and ‘Danes’ were often (but not always) used pretty much interchangeably by both English and Frankish chroniclers. In Ireland the old identification of Dubgaill (dark/black foreigners) as Danish and the earlier Finngaill (fair/white foreigners’) as Norwegians is no longer supported by most historians; ‘new’ and ‘old’ now being the preferred interpretations.[43]

In the first half of the ninth century Norway didn’t really exist as a political entity and the area of Vik around the Oslo Fjord was for a long time part of the kingdom of Denmark. As the Danish historian Else Roesdahl, among others, has shown, viking fleets and armies were very often ‘multinational’ in their composition.[44] This is not to deny that many of the Scandinavians who raided and settled in the British isles, particularly in the early years and particularly in Ireland and Scotland, came from the south-west coast of what is now Norway, but if the proximate  origin of Ívarr’s ‘family enterprise’ was Frisia, as suggested here, then it is clear that his dynasty and the initial Scandinavian settlement of England was primarily a Danish affair because the Vikings in Frisia were most likely ‘Danes’ – but included no doubt important elements from the Vik area of Norway, from where some suggest we get the word Viking.

vikings 5

Notes and references:

[1] S. W. Partington, The Danes in Lancashire and Yorkshire, London 1909, pp. 3 & 89.

[2] Clare Downham, Vikings in England to A.D. 1016, in Stefan Brink, The Viking World, 2011.

[3] Of course the Frisian Vikings originally came from Scandinavia, from Denmark, but maybe including some from the Vik/Westfold area of present-day Norway.

[4] Dorothy Whitelock, ed., English Historical Documents, Vol 1, ad 500-1042, London 1979.

[5] Janet Nelson, The Annals of St. Bertin, Manchester 1991.

[6] Whitelock, op. cit.

[7] Frank Stenton, Anglo Saxon England, 3rd ed., 2001.

[8] Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge, eds.  Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources, 1983, pp. 69, 231-2, 235.

[9] Whitelock, op. cit.

[10] See for example: Rory McTurk, Studies in Ragnars saga loðbrókar and Its Major Scandinavian Analogues, Medium Aevum Monographs 15, Oxford, 1991.

[11] Clare Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland. The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014, 2007.

[12] Downham, op. cit.

[13] Downham, op. cit.

[14] Æthelweard, Chronicon, ed. and tr. Alistair Campbell, The Chronicle of Æthelweard, London, 1961.

[15] Abbo of Fleury, Life of St. Edmund, King of East Anglia before 870, Anglo-Saxon version in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer, 9th edn. (Oxford, 1961), pp. 81-87, trans. K. Cutler.

[16] Whitelock, op. cit.

[17] Marios Costambeys, ‘Ívarr (d. 873), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

[18] The Church Historians of England – The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham, Vol. 111 – Part 11, trans. Joseph Stevenson, 1855, p. 654.

[19] Woolf, op. cit, p. 73.

[20] Robert Ferguson, The Hammer and the Cross, A New History of the Vikings, London, 2009, p. 135.

[21]  Costambeys, op.cit.

[22] Ben Waggoner, The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, 2009..

[23] Downham, op.cit. .

[24] Downham, op.cit..

[25] Ted Johnson South, Historia de sancto Cuthberto, A History of Saint Cuthbert and Record of His Patrimony, Cambridge, 2002.

[26] Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, 2007,  p.72.

[27] Quoted in Woolf, op.cit.

[28] Downham suggests that Óláfr was the senior.

[29] Woolf, op. cit..

[30] Simon Coupland, From poachers to gamekeepers: Scandinavian warlords and Carolingian kings, Early Medieval Europe, Vol 7 No 1, Oxford, 1998.

[31] Nelson, op. cit.

[32] Johnson South, op. cit.

[33] Woolf, op. cit.,

[34] Felix Lieberman, Die Name Scaldi fuer Daenen, Archiv 148, 1925.

[35] Annales Lindisfarnenses, ed. G. Pertz, MGH SS79, Leipzig, 1925, p. 506.

[36]  Roberta Frank, Skaldic Verse and the date of Beowulf, p..127, in The Dating of Beowulf, ed. Colin Chase, Toronto, 1997.

[37] In addition, the fact the later Viking and then Anglo-Saxon members of the Byzantine Varangian guard were often referred to as ‘axe-bearing’ barbarians doesn’t in my view make the ‘shieldmen’ derivation any more convincing. Of course this derivation of Scaldingi is also based on a later (c. 1200) legendary name given to the supposed founder of Ívarr’s dynasty, Skjoldr (OE Scyld), by Saxo Grammaticus in his ‘Danish History’.

[38] Downham, op.cit.

[39]  The later Norse Sagas tell us more about this.

[40] Downham, op.cit.

[41] The Annals of Fulda. Ninth-century Histories 2, trans. and annotated by Timothy Reuter, Manchester Medieval Sources series, Manchester, 1991.

[42] See: Clare Downham, Viking identities in Ireland: it’s not all black and white, Medieval Dublin vol 11, pp. 185-201, 2011.

[43] For example see: Downham, op.cit; Woolf, op.cit.

[44] Else Roesdahl, The Vikings, 1998.

There are times when many of us want to get away from overweening, domineering and intrusive nation-states. But where could we go? My thoughts have recently started to turn towards Belgium and to its great gift to the world.

Before I get to Belgium, which is not a thing I usually like to do, what other possibilities could there be? There is always the dream of a sustainable, organic small-holding in some God-forsaken Welsh valley – a place where I could wear sandals, knit my own yogurt or even open yet another home-made candle shop. Yet that’s still not remote enough to avoid the reach of petty-fogging British bureaucrats and, what’s more, it never stops raining in Wales.

A beach in Thailand or in the Indian province of Kerala perhaps? Hanging out with some old, failed, rock musicians, or more successful Cockney criminals, I could watch the daily arrival of hoards of privileged Western youth trying to be hippies but really just living off daddy’s money. Better not.

So what about an enclave, a place lost in a type of no-man’s land that through some quirk of history has evaded the grasping attentions of power-hungry states? For the sake of the more linguistically challenged, an enclave is ‘an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct from the foreign territory that surrounds it’. Even today there are dozens of such enclaves around.

The Vatican City isn’t at all the type of enclave I’m looking for; after all it’s a state in its own right with its own pretty-boy Swiss army. With my political and religious views it’s also highly unlikely that the Pope would ever ask me over for a couple of beers and to listen to his extensive collection of 1970s British blues-rock. Though that’s a shame as I’m led to understand that Pope Benedict does a passable karaoke version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water – John the Baptist’s water no doubt.

Well then there’s always Llivia, a miniscule parcel of Spanish territory in the Pyrenees, completely surrounded by France. Llivia was created because the French and Spanish couldn’t agree on its status when they negotiated their frontiers in 1659 – in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. But I’ve also rejected Llivia. It is indeed a true enclave but it’s still part of Spain and the Spanish are surely the noisiest people on the planet, as anyone who has had to sit next to a Spanish family on a beach or in a plane can testify.

After considering several other options I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in Belgium. There are three possibilities here. The first, and the one I think I would find most congenial, unfortunately no longer exists.  Yet I can still dream.

Neutral Moresnet

Once Napoleon had been defeated, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious powers established a united Netherlands. They couldn’t, however, agree on who should get a tiny 350 hectare sliver of territory lying south west of Aachen. The main issue was that this land, centred on Kelmis (La Calamine), was the site of one of Europe’s richest zinc deposits. So it was designated neutral  – ‘Neutral  Moresnet’ – a true enclave lying between Germany and Holland. The other bits of Moresnet were divided between Prussia and Holland.

But following the Belgian Revolution, the artificial state of Belgium came into existence. A creation ratified by the London Conference of 1830. I like to imagine the scene in London during the negotiations between Prussia, Holland and the ‘Belgians’, all overseen by the victorious British.

First there were the Prussians, no doubt making it clear in their usual gentle and understated way, and with good reason, that it was their Marshal Blücher and his army of Germans who had saved the Duke of Wellington’s bacon at the Battle of Waterloo, enabling Napoleon to be defeated. The Dutch delegation – somewhat peeved that a large chunk of their country was being removed and given over to the tender mercies of the French-speaking Walloon aristocracy, and remembering the days when they had fought so valiantly for their liberty and had become a great maritime and colonial power – well maybe they snuck off at the end of a hard day’s talking and drowned their sorrows with a few good Dutch beers (remember the superior ‘Belgian’ beer didn’t yet exist).  And then there were the French-speaking Walloons. Even though France’s one and only big attempt at European domination had failed, I like to imagine them, like all French at all times, colourfully dressed like pompous peacocks. I’m also sure they also did an admirable imitation, avant la lettre, of Dr. Strangelove’s instinctive Nazi salute and ‘Sieg Heil’. At every opportunity they would have mentioned ‘L’honneur de la France’ – not yet knowing that they were becoming Belgian now and hence in for two hundred years of French ridicule and condescension. In their pride these Frenchmen probably felt that discussing the future of a few rustic Frankish oiks was below them; and in their national collective historical amnesia I guess they didn’t even remember that it was precisely from these German/Ripuarian Frankish areas that the ‘Franks’, who created and gave their name to France, originated. Did they even know, and do the French today know, that Charlemagne himself was a German-speaking German?

And the British, the hosts of the London Conference, what did they make of all this? As always they would likely have been slightly bemused by all the strutting and fretting of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, who didn’t even have the courtesy to speak English properly. They did, however, have the satisfaction of putting one of their own German Royal family on the Belgian throne, King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the uncle of Queen Victoria of England), who was to go on to have such great fun in the Congo.

I’m sure this is all a travesty of history. Or is it?

In any case, the London conference decided to keep ‘Neutral Moresnet’ and it became an enclave in Wallonian Belgium, even though its people spoke German, or more correctly Ripuarian Frankish. Neutral Moresnet’s northern tip met the conjunction of Germany, Holland and Belgium at a veritable four-country point at what is now called the ‘Trois Bornes’ in Vaals (Neutral Moresnet having since disappeared), which lies at the staggering height of 323 metres above sea-level in the endearingly named ‘Dutch Alps’.

Neutral Moresnet existed for a hundred years and what a place it must have been! For most of its history it was run as a kind of ‘social’ company town by Francois Mosselman and his successors, the owners of the zinc mine. Taxes and prices were low, wages high and, for much of the time, its population were able to avoid the rapacious desire of both Belgium and Germany to conscript them as cannon-fodder. Such a haven attracted many immigrants and Neutral Moresnet’s population grew ten-fold from just 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. And why not? People were allowed to have their own breweries and distilleries, although supposedly only for their own use. Eventually there were 60-70 bars and cafes in the main street alone. Truly I think I’ve ‘found my bliss’. But even they couldn’t drink all the alcohol they produced and much of the population turned to smuggling booze to Holland, a good case we might think of taking coals to Newcastle.

Dr. Wilhelm Molly

The enclave printed its own stamps and wrote its own national anthem. In the early twentieth century, under the leadership of a local doctor, Wilhelm Molly, it even tried to make Esperanto the official language of what Dr. Molly proposed to call ‘Amikejo’. The fourth Esperantist Congress decided to make Neutral Moresnet the new seat of its global organization instead of The Hague.

Regrettably, this bucolic, and probably inebriated, existence all came tumbling down when the Germans capitulated in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles granted the enclave to Belgium. So I can’t move there. Yet there’s no need for despair, Belgium, in its genius, has another couple of enclaves to offer.

The Vennbahn Corridor and The German Enclaves in Belgium

I could go and live on a railway line. Starting in 1885 the Germans built the Vennbahn (‘Fenn Rail’) from Aachen to Trois Ponts in the province of Liège. Over the course of the next decades, and after two German invasions of Belgium, the ownership and property of the Vennbahn was granted to Belgium. The only problem is that this separated five German areas from Germany proper. Strictly speaking it’s these German communes that are the enclaves. The present Belgian territory, often no wider than the railway line itself, is not really cut off from the rest of the country; so it doesn’t really match my criteria. Not only this, but I don’t think I could live there. Stretches of the former railway line have been converted into cycle tracks and the mere thought of waking up every morning to the sight of groups of fat, lycra-clad, German cyclists passing my front window is enough to bring on waves of nausea.

Yet Belgium has one last trick up its sleeve – Baarle.

The Baarle Enclaves

Believe it or not just north of the Belgium town of Breda but in the present-day Netherlands there are twenty-two tiny Belgian enclaves in and around the town of Baarle. It gets better. Lying within these Belgian enclaves in Dutch territory (called Baarle-Hertog) there are also seven Dutch sub-enclaves (called Baarle-Nassau), plus another one in Belgium proper. The total surface area is only 2.34 square kilometers with a population of roughly 2,200. The history of these enclaves goes back to 1203, but the important thing for me is that despite lots of changes these wonderful enclaves still exist and I could go and live there. What joy it must have been, and hopefully still is, for the inhabitants of Baarle to drive the functionaries to distraction. I’ll mention just a few of the pleasures I have discovered.

The Baarle frontiers run through houses and shops

The frontiers sometimes run straight through houses and shops, offering great opportunities to irritate the bureaucrats. Dutch and Belgian taxes and child benefits often vary in their generosity. This affords the chance to change your residence as you deem best for you. Residence is defined by in which country your main entrance is located, so if you want to change your residency, and hence your fiscal regime, you can change your front door. People do this. There are houses in Baarle with an inward-opening front entrance in one country and an outward-opening door in the other. If the relative tax merits of Holland and Belgium change you can always reverse the hinges. How the Dutch and Belgian petty bureaucrats must hate this!

And then there is no better way to savour the ludicrous, capricious nature of state borders than to post a letter.  If you post a letter in a Dutch enclave within the Belgian enclave in Holland, to a person down the street in the Belgian enclave itself, your letter will first go to Brussels then by air to Amsterdam before eventually making its way back to Baarle. If, on the other hand, you were to walk a few metres down the street and post your letter in the Belgian enclave it would never leave the town at all.

Back to alcohol. One report I have read tells us that ‘several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle’s pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing.’ It irritated the authorities so much they had to harmonize the licensing laws to do away with this simple pleasure.

What about fireworks and sex? The truly important things in life. Anyone who knows Holland a little will know that you’re only allowed to buy fireworks on Christmas Eve (please tell me if I am wrong); but then the Dutch go absolutely crazy with them. In Belgium you can buy them all year round, so the firework trade in Baarle thrives. ‘The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops – not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle.’

Finally, I love the fact that in the town there are ‘two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.’

Belgium and its Languages

Belgium is, of course, an artificial creation, a place where the French-speaking Walloons, the Flemish, and the oft forgotten Germans in the east of the country, have been living unhappily together for nearly two hundred years. But the Belgian enclaves have been a real and great gift that Belgium has given to the world; along with… well I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

So the Belgian enclaves of Baarle in Holland are the places for me. Now I only need to persuade my family of their merits.